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The Battle of Teutoburg Forest


"The result of this disaster was that the empire, which had not stopped on the shores of the Ocean, was checked on the banks of the Rhine."

Florus, Epitome of Roman History (II.30)

In 13 BC, Publius Quinctilius Varus was consul with Tiberius and responsible for the spectacle celebrating the return of Augustus from Spain and Gaul. (Augustus prided himself on his recovery of the legionary standards lost there and in Dalmatia and Parthia, Res Gestae, XXIX). A few years later, he married the grand-niece of the emperor himself (and earlier had been married to a daughter of Marcus Agrippa, whose funeral eulogy he delivered). Well connected to the imperial family and having the confidence of Augustus, Varus was appointed governor of Syria in 6 BC, where he quelled disturbances that erupted after the death of Herod, and then, fatefully, governor of the Rhineland in AD 7.

The region had been subdued by Tiberius two years before, Velleius Paterculus, who was a prefect of the cavalry during the campaign, exulting that "All Germany was traversed by our armies, races were conquered hitherto almost unknown, even by name....All the flower of their youth, infinite in number though they were, huge of stature and protected by the ground they held, surrendered their arms" (Compendium of Roman History, CVI.1ff). The Roman army, in fact, marched from the Rhine as far as the Elbe, where it met supply ships that had advanced up the river from the North Sea. Now, "Nothing remained to be conquered in Germany except the people of the Marcomanni" (CVIII.1ff; Strabo, Geography, VII.1.3), who, led by Maroboduus, had migrated from Germany to found a kingdom in present-day Bohemia.

Dio, Roman History, LVI

18 Scarcely had these decrees been passed, when terrible news that arrived from the province of Germany prevented them from holding the festival. I shall now relate the events which had taken place in Germany during this period. The Romans were holding portions of it not entire regions, but merely such districts as happened to have been subdued, so that no record has been made of the fact 2and soldiers of theirs were wintering there and cities were being founded. The barbarians were adapting themselves to Roman ways, were becoming accustomed to hold markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblages. They had not, however, forgotten their ancestral habits, their native manners, their old life of independence, or the power derived from arms. 3Hence, so long as they were unlearning these customs gradually and by the way, as one may say, under careful watching, they were not disturbed by the change in their manner of life, and were becoming different without knowing it. But when Quintilius Varus became governor of the province of Germany, and in the discharge of his official duties was administering the affairs of these peoples also, he strove to change them more rapidly. Besides issuing orders to them as if they were actually slaves of the Romans, he exacted money as he would from subject nations. 4To this they were in no mood to submit, for the leaders longed for their former ascendancy and the masses preferred their accustomed condition to foreign domination. Now they did not openly revolt, since they saw that there were many Roman troops near the Rhine and many within their own borders; 5instead, they received Varus, pretending that they would do all he demanded of them, and thus they drew him far away from the Rhine into the land of the Cherusci, toward the Visurgis, and there by behaving in a most peaceful and friendly manner led him to believe that they would live submissively without the presence of soldiers.

19 Consequently he did not keep his legions together, as was proper in a hostile country, but distributed many of the soldiers to helpless communities, which asked for them for the alleged purpose of guarding various points, arresting robbers, or escorting provision trains. 2Among those deepest in the conspiracy and leaders of the plot and of the war were Armenius and Segimerus, who were his constant companions and often shared his mess. 3He accordingly became confident, and expecting no harm, not only refused to believe all those who suspected what was going on and advised him to be on his guard, but actually rebuked them for being needlessly excited and slandering his friends. Then there came an uprising, first on the part of those who lived at a distance from him, deliberately so arranged, 4in order that Varus should march against them and so be more easily overpowered while proceeding through what was supposed to be friendly country, instead of putting himself on his guard as he would do in case all became hostile to him at once. And so it came to pass. They escorted him as he set out, and then begged to be excused from further attendance, in order, as they claimed, to assemble their allied forces, after which they would quietly come to his aid. 5Then they took charge of their troops, which were already in waiting somewhere, and after the men in each community had put to death the detachments of soldiers for which they had previously asked, they came upon Varus in the midst of forests by this time almost impenetrable. And there, at the very moment of revealing themselves as enemies instead of subjects, they wrought great and dire havoc.

20 The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it. 2They had with them many waggons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups. 3Meanwhile a violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion. 4While the Romans were in such difficulties, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them. 5For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the waggons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.

21 Accordingly they encamped on the spot, after securing a suitable place, so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain; and afterwards they either burned or abandoned most of their waggons and everything else that was not absolutely necessary to them. The next day they advanced in a little better order, and even reached open country, though they did not get off without loss. 2Upon setting out from there they plunged into the woods again, where they defended themselves against their assailants, but suffered their heaviest losses while doing so. For since they had to form their lines in a narrow space, in order that the cavalry and infantry together might run down the enemy, they collided frequently with one another and with the trees. 3They were still advancing when the fourth day dawned, and again a heavy downpour and violent wind assailed them, preventing them from going forward and even from standing securely, and moreover depriving them of the use of their weapons. For they could not handle their bows or their javelins with any success, nor, for that matter, their shields, which were thoroughly soaked. 4Their opponents, on the other hand, being for the most part lightly equipped, and able to approach and retire freely, suffered less from the storm. Furthermore, the enemy's forces had greatly increased, as many of those who had at first wavered joined them, largely in the hope of plunder, and thus they could more easily encircle and strike down the Romans, whose ranks were now thinned, many having perished in the earlier fighting. 5Varus, therefore, and all the more prominent officers, fearing that they should either be captured alive or be killed by their bitterest foes (for they had already been wounded), made bold to do a thing that was terrible yet unavoidable: they took their own lives.

22 When news of this had spread, none of the rest, even if he had any strength left, defended himself any longer. Some imitated their leader, and others, casting aside their arms, allowed anybody who pleased to slay them; for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so. 2Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance, and the . . .

And the barbarians occupied all the strongholds save one, their delay at which prevented them from either crossing the Rhine or invading Gaul. Yet they found themselves unable to reduce this fort, because they did not understand the conduct of sieges, and because the Romans employed numerous archers, who repeatedly repulsed them and destroyed large numbers of them.

Later they learned that the Romans had posted a guard at the Rhine, and that Tiberius was approaching with an imposing army. Therefore most of the barbarians retired from the fort, and even the detachment still left there withdrew to a considerable distance, so as not to be injured by sudden sallies on the part of the garrison, and then kept watch of the roads, hoping to capture the garrison through the failure of their provisions. The Romans inside, so long as they had plenty of food, remained where they were, awaiting relief; but when no one came to their assistance and they were also hard pressed by hunger, they waited merely for a stormy night and then stole forth. Now the soldiers were but few, the unarmed many. 2They succeeded in getting past the foe's first and second outposts, but when they reached the third, they were discovered, for the women and children, by reason of their fatigue and fear as well as on account of the darkness and cold, kept calling to the warriors to come back. 3And they would all have perished or been captured, had the barbarians not been occupied in seizing the plunder. This afforded an opportunity for the most hardy to get some distance away, and the trumpeters with them by sounding the signal for a double-quick march caused the enemy to think that they had been sent by Asprenas. 4Therefore the foe ceased his pursuit, and Asprenas, upon learning what was taking place, actually did render them assistance. Some of the prisoners were afterwards ransomed by their relatives and returned from captivity; for this was permitted on condition that the men ransomed should remain outside of Italy. This, however, occurred later.

23 Augustus, when he learned of the disaster to Varus, rent his garments, as some report, and mourned greatly, not only because of the soldiers who had been lost, but also because of his fear for the German and Gallic provinces, and particularly because he expected that the enemy would march against Italy and against Rome itself. For there were no citizens of military age left worth mentioning, and the allied forces that were of any value had suffered severely. 2Nevertheless, he made preparations as best he could in view of the circumstances; and when no men of military age showed a willingness to be enrolled, he made them draw lots, depriving of his property and disfranchising every fifth man of those still under thirty-five and every tenth man among those who had passed that age. 3Finally, as a great many paid no heed to him even then, he put some to death. He chose by lot as many as he could of those who had already completed their term of service and of the freedmen, and after enrolling them sent them in haste with Tiberius into the province of Germany. 4And as there were in Rome a large number of Gauls and Germans, some of them serving in the pretorian guard and others sojourning there for various reasons, he feared they might begin a rebellion; hence he sent away such as were in his body-guard to certain islands and ordered those who were unarmed to leave the city.

24 This was the way he handled matters at that time; and none of the usual business was carried on nor were the festivals celebrated. Later, when he heard that some of the soldiers had been saved, that the Germanies were garrisoned, and that the enemy did not venture to come even to the Rhine, he ceased to be alarmed and paused to consider the matter. 2For a catastrophe so great and sudden as this, it seemed to him, could have been due to nothing else than the wrath of some divinity; moreover, by reason of the portents which occurred both before the defeat and afterwards, he was strongly inclined to suspect some superhuman agency. 3For the temple of Mars in the field of the same name was struck by lightning, and many locusts flew into the very city and were devoured by swallows; the peaks of the Alps seemed to collapse upon one another and to send up three columns of fire; the sky in many places seemed ablaze 4and numerous comets appeared at one and the same time; spears seemed to dart from the north and to fall in the direction of the Roman camps; bees formed their combs about the altars in the camps; a statue of Victory that was in the province of Germany and faced the enemy's territory turned about to face Italy; 5and in one instance there was a futile battle and conflict of the soldiers over the eagles in the camps, the soldiers believing that the barbarians had fallen upon them.

Paterculus, Roman History, II

118 But the Germans, who with their great ferocity combine great craft, to an extent scarcely credible to one who has had no experience with them, and are a race to lying born, by trumping up a series of fictitious lawsuits, now provoking one another to disputes, and now expressing their gratitude that Roman justice was settling these disputes, that their own barbarous nature was being softened down by this new and hitherto unknown method, and that quarrels which were usually settled by arms were now being ended by law, brought Quintilius to such a complete degree of negligence, that he came to look upon himself as a city praetor administering justice in the forum, and not a general in command of an army in the heart of Germany. 2 Thereupon appeared a young man of noble birth, brave in action and alert in mind, possessing an intelligence quite beyond the ordinary barbarian; he was, namely, Arminius, the son of Sigimer, a prince of that nation, and he showed in his countenance and in his eyes the fire of the mind within. He had been associated with us constantly on private campaigns, and had even attained the dignity of equestrian rank. This young man made use of the negligence of the general as an opportunity for treachery, sagaciously seeing that no one could be more quickly overpowered than the man who feared nothing, and that the most common beginning of disaster was a sense of security. 3 At first, then, he admitted but a few, later a large number, to a share in his design; he told them, and convinced them too, that the Romans could be crushed, added execution to resolve, and named a day for carrying out the plot. 4 This was disclosed to Varus through Segestes, a loyal man of that race and of illustrious name, who also demanded that the conspirators be put in chains. But fate now dominated the plans of Varus and had blindfolded the eyes of his mind. Indeed, it is usually the case that heaven perverts the judgement of the man whose fortune it means to reverse, and brings it to pass and this is the wretched part of it that that which happens by chance seems to be deserved, and accident passes over into culpability. And so Quintilius refused to believe the story, and insisted upon judging the apparent friendship of the Germans toward him by the standard of his merit. And, after this first warning, there was no time left for a second.

119 The details of this terrible calamity, the heaviest that had befallen the Romans on foreign soil since the disaster of Crassus in Parthia, I shall endeavour to set forth, as others have done, in my larger work. Here I can merely lament the disaster as a whole. 2 An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded, nor was as much opportunity as they had wished given to the soldiers either of fighting or of extricating themselves, except against heavy odds; nay, some were even heavily chastised for using the arms and showing the spirit of Romans. Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans. 3 The general had more courage to die than to fight, for, following the example of his father and grandfather, he ran himself through with his sword. 4 Of the two prefects of the camp, Lucius Eggius furnished a precedent as noble as that of Ceionius was base, who, after the greater part of the army had perished, proposed its surrender, preferring to die by torture at the hands of the enemy than in battle. Vala Numonius, lieutenant of Varus, who, in the rest of his life, had been an inoffensive and an honourable man, also set a fearful example in that he left the infantry unprotected by the cavalry and in flight tried to reach the Rhine with his squadrons of horse. But fortune avenged his act, for he did not survive those whom he had abandoned, but died in the act of deserting them. 5 The body of Varus, partially burned, was mangled by the enemy in their barbarity; his head was cut off and taken to Maroboduus and was sent by him to Caesar; but in spite of the disaster it was honoured by burial in the tomb of his family.

120 On hearing of this disaster, Caesar flew to his father's side. The constant protector of the Roman empire again took up his accustomed part. Dispatched to Germany, he reassured the provinces of Gaul, distributed his armies, strengthened the garrison towns, and then, measuring himself by the standard of his own greatness, and not by the presumption of an enemy who threatened Italy with a war like that of the Cimbri and Teutones, he took the offensive and crossed the Rhine with his army. 2 He thus made aggressive war upon the p305enemy when his father and his country would have been content to let him hold them in check, he penetrated into the heart of the country, opened up military roads, devastated fields, burned houses, routed those who came against him, and, without loss to the troops with which he had crossed, he returned, covered with glory, to winter quarters.

3 Due tribute should be paid to Lucius Asprenas, who was serving as lieutenant under Varus his uncle, and who, backed by the brave and energetic support of the two legions under his command, saved his army from this great disaster, and by a quick descent to the quarters of the army in Lower Germany strengthened the allegiance of the races even on the hither side of the Rhine who were beginning to waver. There are those, however, who believed that, though he had saved the lives of the living, he had appropriated to his own use the property of the dead who were slain with Varus, and that inheritances of the slaughtered army were claimed by him at pleasure. 4 The valour of Lucius Caedicius, prefect of the camp, also deserves praise, and of those who, pent up with him at Aliso, were besieged by an immense force of Germans. For, overcoming all their difficulties which want rendered unendurable and the forces of the enemy almost insurmountable, following a design that was carefully considered, and using a vigilance that was ever on the alert, they watched their chance, and with the sword won their way back to their friends. 5 From all this it is evident that Varus, who was, it must be confessed, a man of character and of good intentions, lost his life and his magnificent army more through lack of judgement in the commander than of valour in his soldiers. 6 When the Germans were venting their rage upon their captives, an heroic act was performed by Caldus Caelius, a young man worthy in every way of his long line of ancestors, who, seizing a section of the chain with which he was bound, brought down with such force upon his own head as to cause his instant death, both his brains and his blood gushing from the wound.

Suetonius, Life of Augustus, XXIII

"He suffered but two severe and ignominious defeats, those of Lollius and Varus, both of which were in Germany. Of these the former was more humiliating than serious, but the latter was almost fatal, since three legions were cut to pieces with their general, his lieutenants, and all the auxiliaries. When the news of this came, he ordered that watch be kept by night throughout the city, to prevent outbreak, and prolonged the terms of the governors of the provinces, that the allies might be held to their allegiance by experienced men with whom they were acquainted. 2 He also vowed great games to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, in case the condition of the commonwealth should improve, a thing which had been done in the Cimbric and Marsic wars. In fact, they saw that he was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: 'Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!' And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning."

Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, XVII-XVIII

17 Circumstances gave this exploit a larger and crowning glory; for it was at just about that time that Quintilius Varus perished with three legions in Germany, and no one doubted that the victorious Germans would have united with the Pannonians, had not Illyricum been subdued first. Consequently a triumph was voted him and many high honours. 2 Some also recommended that he be given the surname of Pannonicus, others of Invictus, others of Pius. Augustus however vetoed the surname, reiterating the promise that Tiberius would be satisfied with one which he would receive at his father's death. Tiberius himself put off the triumph, because the country was in mourning for the disaster to Varus; but he entered the city clad in the purple-bordered toga and crowned with laurel, and mounting a tribunal which had been set up in the Saepta, while the senate stood alongside, he took his seat beside Augustus between the two consuls. Having greeted the people from this position, he was escorted to the various temples.

18 The next year he returned to Germany, and realising that the disaster to Varus was due to that general's rashness and lack of care, he took no step without the approval of a council; while he had always before been a man of independent judgment and self-reliance, then contrary to his habit he consulted with many advisers about the conduct of the campaign. He also observed more scrupulous care than usual. When on the point of crossing the Rhine, he reduced all the baggage to a prescribed limit, and would not start without standing on the bank and inspecting the loads of the wagons, to make sure that nothing was taken except what was allowed or necessary. 2 Once on the other side, he adopted the following manner of life: he took his meals sitting on the bare turf, often passed the night without a tent, and gave all his orders for the following day, as well as notice of any sudden emergency, in writing; adding the injunction that if anyone was in doubt about any matter, he was to consult him personally at any hour whatsoever, even of the night.

Florus, Epitome of Roman History, XXX

29 But it is more difficult to retain than to create provinces; they are won by force, they are secured by justice. 30 Therefore our joy was short-lived; for the Germans had been defeated rather than subdued, and under the rule of Drusus they respected our moral qualities rather than our arms. 31 After his death they began to detest the licentiousness and pride not less than the cruelty of Quintillius Varus. He had the temerity to hold an assembly and had issued an edict against the Catthi,b2 just as though he could restrain the violence of barbarians by the rod of a lictor and the proclamation of a herald. 32 But the Germans who had long been regretting that their swords were rusted and their horses idle, as soon as they saw the toga and experienced laws more cruel than arms, snatched up their weapons under the leadership of Armenius. 33 Meanwhile Varus was so confident of peace that he was quite unperturbed even when the conspiracy was betrayed to him by Segestes, one of the chiefs. 34 And so when he was unprepared and had no fear of any such thing, at a moment when (such was his confidence) he was actually summoning them to appear before his tribunal, they rose and attacked him from all sides. His camp was seized, and three legions were overwhelmed. 35 Varus met disaster by the same fate and with the same courage as Paulus on the fatal day of Cannae. 36 Never was there slaughter more cruel than took place there in the marshes and woods, never were more intolerable insults inflicted by barbarians, especially those directed against the legal pleaders. 37 They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others; they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, exclaiming, "At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss." 38 The body too of the consul himself, which the dutiful affection of the soldiers had buried, was disinterred. As for the standards and eagles, the barbarians possess two to this day; the third eagle was wrenched from its pole, before it could fall into the hands of the enemy, by the standard-bearer, who, carrying it concealed in the folds round his belt, secreted himself in the blood-stained marsh. The result of this disaster was that the empire, which had not stopped on the shores of the Ocean, 39 was checked on the banks of the Rhine.

A bibliographic note: The primary sources comprise only a dozen or so pages in the Loeb Classical Library, although entire books have been written on the battle. The first accounts are terse indeed, either because details were unknown (or conversely, already commonly understood) or too distressing to bear repeating. The earliest reference is to "rebellious Germany" in Ovid's Tristia (III.12.45ff), which was written in the spring of AD 10, just months after the defeat, when Ovid was in exile on the shores of the Black Sea. Another passage, composed the next year, speaks of "this traitor who trapped our men in a treacherous place" and the priest who sacrificed captives to their gods (IV.2.31ff). About the same time, Manilius writes of the battle in the Astronomica, where "in foreign parts, when, its oaths forsworn, barbarous Germany made away with our commander Varus and stained the fields with three legions' blood" (I.898ff). Both poets emphasize the treachery and perfidy of the Germans, as does Strabo in his Geography, revised (or written) about AD 18. There, he cautions that "In dealing with these peoples distrust has been a great advantage, whereas those who have been trusted have done the greatest harm, as, for instance, the Cherusci and their subjects, in whose country three Roman legions, with their general Quintilius Varus, were destroyed by ambush in violation of the treaty" (VII.1.4).

Velleius Paterculus, who knew both Varus and Arminius, and published his Compendium of Roman History in AD 30, is the first to write a more extensive account (CXIX). Tacitus, writing sometime after AD 110, says only that Varus "succumbed to his fate and the sword of Arminius" rather than heed the warning of Segestes, his father-in-law, to have him arrested (Annals, I.55). His emphasis is on Germanicus, who returned to the battlefield to bury the bones of those who had died there. In the reign of Hadrian (c.AD 125), Florus speaks of the disaster and the cruelty of the barbarians of Germany and that "Its loss was a disgrace which far outweighed the glory of its acquisition" (Epitome, II.30). And Suetonius, Hadrian's personal secretary, mentions the battle in his lives of Tiberius (XVII), Augustus (XXIII), and Caligula (III), where Germanicus collected the scattered remnants of those who had fallen and planned to bury them in a single mound. It is Dio, however, who, at the beginning of the third century AD, provides the most comprehensive and dramatic retelling (LVI.18-24). All agree that the disaster was the result of German treachery and Roman miscalculation.

  This iron face mask of a Roman standard bearer is the most impressive artifact in the museum collection, the spear heads the most ominous.

From the vantage point of the museum tower, the battlefield can be seen in the morning fog on a day early in October 2008. The next year marked the two-thousandth anniversary of the battle.

Although decisive, the battle of Teutoburg Forest was not Rome's greatest defeat. "This terrible calamity, the heaviest that had befallen the Romans on foreign soil since the disaster of Crassus in Parthia" (Paterculus, CIX) was less disastrous than the loss at Carrhae (53 BC), in which 20,000 soldiers were said to have been killed and 10,000 captured (Plutarch, Crassus, XXV; Dio, XL.14ff). Against Hannibal at Cannae (216 BC), 50,000 died (Livy, XXIII.49, XXV.6; also Appian, Roman History, VII.25 and Plutarch, Life of Fabius Maximus, XVI.8; Quintilian says 60,000; Institutio Oratoria, VIII.6.26; Polybius, 70,000, The Histories, III.117). Indeed, against Germanic tribes at the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC, Livy records 80,000 Roman casualties (Periochae, LXVII).

References: Dio's Roman History (1924) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Strabo: Geography (1917-) translated by H. L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Velleius Paterculus: Compendium of Roman History (1924) translated by Frederick W. Shipley (Loeb Classical Library); Tacitus: The Annals (1931) translated by John Jackson (Loeb Classical Library); Lucius Annaeus Florus: Epitome of Roman History (1984) translated by Edward Seymour Forster (Loeb Classical Library); Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (1913) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library).

"The Ambush that Changed History" (2005, September) by Fergus M. Bordewich, Smithsonian Magazine, 74-81; "Of Battles and the Writing of History: The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest" (2005) by Madelyn Bergen Dick, Amphora, 4(1), 1-2, 8-9; The Battle That Stopped Rome (2006) by Peter S. Wells; Rome's Greatest Defeat. Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest (2006) by Adrian Murdoch; The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions: Discovering the Varus Battlefield (2005) by Tony Clunn, whose book is comprised of two storylines, a personal narrative based on the author's records and diary, and an imaginative retelling of the defeat as historical fiction. Reading book-length treatments of the battle, one realizes that a single lengthy article would be as satisfying.

See also Thusnelda.

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